Dry weather had already hurt the Georgia pecan crop before the season began. And things could worsen quickly without a break in the summer drought, said a University of Georgia expert.
"The dry weather has definitely hurt pecan trees," said Tom Crocker, an Extension Service horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "The trees need a lot of water to dissipate all this heat. And they're having to use up stored energy."
Crocker said last year's hot, dry July and August caused the state's trees to set a much smaller crop of nuts than they might have. The crop has been estimated at 58 million pounds.
The pecan crop varies from year to year, but a 58 million-pound crop would be the state's smallest since 1992. Georgia produced 150 million pounds in '93.
"That smaller crop of nuts actually makes it a little easier on the trees than it was last year," he said. "They don't have that big crop of nuts to develop. But we've still got to have some rain."
Each tree's crop of nuts has been set since May, Crocker said. "They're starting to size up now," he said. "July, August, September and October are critical watering times for pecan trees."
The pecans are growing longer now, he said. The next sizing step is to fill out the nuts' circumference. At each stage, the tree needs water to produce quality pecans.
About 60 percent of the state's commercial pecan trees are irrigated. "We can get enough water to them if our water sources don't dry up," he said. The other 40 percent depend on rain.
Commercial growers need to be taking leaf samples and soil tests now, he said, to determine their trees' nutrient needs.
For home trees, he said, nothing can help more than finding some way to get them water. "It doesn't have to be fancy," he said. "A garden hose will do. The tree doesn't discriminate about where it gets water."
Adding mulch above the trees' feeder roots will help conserve moisture in the soil. "Anything you can do like that will help," Crocker said.
Some areas of southwest Georgia got as much as two inches of badly needed rain on July 9. That will help, he said. But pecan trees need to keep getting water every week as the nuts develop.
Crocker said drought-stressed trees will drop 10 percent to 20 percent of their leaves in an effort to cope. That trims the trees' need for water. If they still don't get enough water, though, they begin dropping, or aborting, the pecans themselves.